National Indigenous Peoples’ Day

A detail of the new totem dedicated yesterday at Edmonds Community School

In Canada, June 21st is not only the first day of summer; it is National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Formerly called National Aboriginal Day, it celebrates the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding achievements of the First Nations.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have traditionally inhabited six cultural areas. One of these – the Northwest Coast – is home to several distinct nations.

The earliest settlement of the Northwest Coast probably was established following the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago, Societies centered around hunting and gathering, with the most valuable resources being salmon for food, and cedar for construction and artwork.

First contact with non-Indigenous peoples on the Northwest Coast likely occurred as early as the 16th century. However, recorded interaction between First Nations people and European explorers / traders began in earnest in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, the Europeans brought smallpox that killed large numbers of the land’s original population. In fact, from the 1770s through the 1860s, epidemics took the lives of thousands. The most devastating outbreak occurred in 1862 at indigenous camps around Victoria. Authorities forced those infected to move back to their home communities; the illness spread, and eventually killed approximately 20,000 people. As well, other diseases dramatically reduced the population throughout the 19th century and early 20th century.

Of all the cultural areas in Canada, the Northwest Coast peoples had the most diversity in language. These include Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Salish languages. Enforced assimilation — the policy of missionaries and government administrators until the late 20th century – outlawed many Indigenous Peoples’ traditional practices. Compulsory education in centrally-located residential schools forbid the speaking of traditional languages, which had devastating effects on the students as well as on community structure and socialization. From 1885 to 1951, the “Indian Act” also banned cultural practices; and as a result of the policies forced on the Indigenous culture, most First Nations peoples in the Northwest Coast area now speak English as a primary language. The ancestral languages and their dialects are critically endangered.

Northwest Coast Indigenous people associated music and decorative arts with both sacred and secular activities. Songs, sometime accompanied by dance were associated with every activity. As well as the pivotal role the songs played in ceremonies, they transmitted family and society traditions – soothing infants, playing games, expressing love and sorrow. Whistles, drums and horns sometimes accompanied the voice.

Sculptural and decorative artwork was also part of daily life. Artists embellished tools, houses, baskets, clothing and items made to represent the supernatural. Wood sculpture and painting are probably the most distinctive Northwest Coast art form; totem poles are the largest examples.

Hewn from millennia-old logs, totem poles are sacred. The carvings often symbolize and commemorate ancestors; they recount cultural beliefs and familiar legends, clan lineages, and / or notable events. The poles may also serve as functional architectural features and welcoming signs for village visitors. They may embody a historical narrative of significance to the people carving and raising the pole. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement requires careful thought.

Yesterday I was invited to pole dedication at Edmonds Community School in South Burnaby, which borders Vancouver. This area is home to residents from 48 countries, and is recognised as Canada’s most diverse nighbourhood. Led by the school’s community coordinator, John Nanson, it is proof that multiculturalism DOES work and that it is a positive and enriching way of life.

Supported by the federal Member of Parliment, Peter Julian, funds were procured for the commission of a totem to commemorate the values of the community.

Jackie ­­­­Timothy is the carver who was selected to create the masterwork. He told the crowd that at 4 ½ years of age, he was forced to attend a residential school, where he remained for seven years. He was not allowed to regularly visit his family or speak the language he had learned in his home. He was not even called by his name; he was known as “Number 51”. Corporal punishment was the norm for even minor infractions. Unfortunately, Jackie’s treatment was not unusual; and after years of such abuse, it is understandable that the children who attended these schools had great difficulties re-adjusting to life back home. In an emotional voice, Jackie spoke of this experience. “When we were allowed to return home, we were rejected,” Jackie continued, “Many people said we had renounced our heritage, but we were just children. We did the best we could to survive.” Over the years, Jackie learned carving from his elders and with the support of his wife Kim, he has done much to reclaim the heritage that had been taken from him and his peers.

The couple’s three adult children all have University educations, and the grandchildren are their greatest joy.  Jackie Timothy’s totem depicts his personal, as well as his peoples’ journey through life. It vividly portrays the goodness and abundance found in this part of the world. But it also testifies to the pain inflicted on some who live here. Ultimately the totem pole depicts the artist’s hopes for reconciliation, forgiveness, and a rebirth of harmony in our shared community.

The totem resonates like a chant – like an eloquent prayer for peace – may it come in our time.


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The Wide Open Skies

As the crow flies…

The grand majority of our family has travelled by train, car and aeroplane – to Foam Lake, Saskachewan – for the wedding of Mitchell, our youngest brother’s eldest son. We have filled up all the rooms at the local motel and still more of our group are in their RVs and tents at the campsite across the road.

The bride is Kelsey, whose family live in this prairie town. And a charming place it is. Getting here from Kamloops took all day, but what a glorious trip – especially the 250 km drive from the Saskatoon airport to Foam Lake – I now know the meaning of WIDE-OPEN SKIES!

The following slide show does not live up to the images and impressions in my mind, but you’ll get an idea of the space of this place.  Tomorrow, after the wedding, I’ll hopefully be in shape to tell you more about this marvellous gathering.

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Fifi Press?


Thank you to all who commented on the blog post I wrote yesterday. I can see that most readers are in synch with the opinion I have about “the bully”. I hope today’s post will garner as much favour, but I won’t be surprised if it does not.

Last July, voters expressed their discontent with the past six federal administrations by electing Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency with an overwhelming majority. Yes, yes, yes… AMLO did promise the moon before he fully figured out a way to deliver it. And this is coming back to haunt him, because there are provocateurs urging Mexicans to expect magic, on demand.

But let’s put things into perspective.  When I stack AMLO’s leadership up against any of the presidents of the past 30+ years, he comes up smelling like a rose – a bit wilted and missing a few petals – but a rose nonetheless. The six of them also promised the moon – along with the sun and the stars – they did not mention however, that we’d have to pay through the teeth for the lion’s share, they’d keep for themselves.

Almost every day we learn new details of the corruption that has crippled Mexico. Pemex and the power company are two of the worst.  No one seems upset when their directors are raked over the coals. However, shutting down public assistance programs seems cold-hearted. Post-doc scholarships and stipends, for example, have been all but axed. However, the programs are riddled with favouritism and abusive practices. I have experienced this.

Those who did not vote for AMLO were mostly from the privileged sector, and many of them reaped millions of pesos by serving each “overlord” in their turn.

Mexico is extremely polarized on every issue there is. It is impossible to please everyone. But the perpetually loudest gripers are the former mainstream press. There are not enough negative epitaphs to adequately express their loathing for AMLO. He cut off the flow of cash (lots of it) that came their way from the nation’s powerbrokers, especially politicians, who needed to win over public opinion. AMLO lost patience one day and called them the “Fifi Press”. He does not call all reporters by this pejorative, but I agree with him; many of them are “fifi”; they squawk like broken records and write the same old thing. Day in and day out.

Many in this culture place great importance on lineage and looks. López Obrador does not fit their aesthetic and his political agenda is not in keeping with their life style.  In a way, I can’t blame them for being upset at losing what they had; but why don’t they just GO (gracefully or stumbling, I don’t care how) and enjoy the “fruits of their labour”. I know they’d miss the prestige of being players – but hey – sometimes you’re “in” and sometimes you’re “out”.

At a time when we as a nation must work together, these decapitated talking heads are unrelenting in their constant attacks against the president.  With the very real menace that the bully presents, we must learn to get along; if we don’t pull together, we’ll all go down. Fifi press too. Think about it.